COPLAND Dance Symphony. Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 2, “Short Symphony”

COPLAND Dance Symphony. Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 2, “Short Symphony” – Marin Alsop, cond; Bournemouth SO – NAXOS 8.559359 (58:40)

Aaron Copland is not usually thought of as belonging to the “American symphonic school,” usually associated with William Schuman, Walter Piston, Peter Mennin et al. On the other hand, his Symphony No. 3 would probably be on most lists of “greatest American symphonies.” But since he didn’t number his symphonies in a strict chronological sequence, his relationship to this formal genre has tended to be vague and unclear. Additional reasons for this lack of clarity will be apparent in the paragraph that follows.

Copland wrote his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1923; this was the piece that prompted conductor Walter Damrosch’s legendary remark to the effect that if Copland can write music like this at the age of 23, in five years he’ll be ready to commit murder. However, anticipating that a symphony with organ would not likely be performed frequently, he wrote an alternate version of the work for orchestra alone in 1928, scoring the organ material for other instruments. This he called his Symphony No. 1. But predictions of the future of classical works are notoriously unreliable. As it happens, the Organ Symphony holds a modest place in the Copland repertoire, while the Symphony No. 1 is rarely heard at all. In fact, if I am not mistaken, this release offers the only version currently available on recording—one of the main virtues of this disc. Meanwhile, also during the early 1920s, Copland fashioned the score for a horrifying ballet inspired by a viewing of Murnau’s classic film Nosferatu. The ballet never materialized, so a few years later Copland reshaped the music into a three-movement orchestral work he called Dance Symphony. But he didn’t give it a number because it wasn’t a “true” symphony in that it did not conform to the customary structure of symphonic form (not that that stopped many other composers of symphonies). Then, in 1933 he composed the work best known today as Short Symphony. When he composed his Symphony No. 3 in 1946, he decided to identify the Short Symphony as Symphony No. 2. So there you have it.

Looking more deeply at the music itself, one observes that all three works date from the composer’s early years, yet their stylistic origins and affinities differ considerably. Few listeners are likely to identify Dance Symphony as a work of Copland, although those who are especially astute may find some clues in the third movement. But it is most closely related to the grotesque post-Le Sacre style represented by, say, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, or, perhaps closer to home, Roger Sessions’s incidental music to The Black Maskers, which may be the most relevant point for comparison, as it written at just about the same time. As with the Sessions, it may not be representative of its composer, but it is a very exciting and engaging work, with qualities that may readily be termed “balletic.” Copland acknowledged the influence of Florent Schmitt—quite highly regarded at the time—on the second movement, “Dance of the Girl who Moves as if in a Dream.” This is perhaps the work’s strongest movement, with a romantic moodiness and sense of drama that did not remain salient to the composer’s mature creative persona. The title of the third movement, “Dance of Mockery,” is most apt, and also boasts some excitingly effective music, although the main thematic idea goes through a rather grating transformation reminiscent of a cat’s meow. Marin Alsop leads the Bournemouth Symphony in a stunning performance of this work.

Although, as noted earlier, the Symphony No. 1 was composed at about the same time as the Dance Symphony, it is a very different work, revealing an ungainliness and aesthetic uncertainty indicative of immaturity, while lacking the flair and appeal of the contemporaneous piece. Angular and austere for the most part, it is rather awkwardly proportioned, with passages that seem strident and aggressive to no convincing expressive purpose. Again, while the astute listener may pick up some hints of the Copland-yet-to-come in the scherzo movement, the symphony provides few clues to its authorship. This scherzo, however, is by far the most attractive portion of the work, with appealing polyrhythmic and syncopated effects. Although the symphony may be one of the composer’s weaker efforts, I must confess a preference for this orchestra-only version; I find that the organ-with-orchestra treatment exacerbates the ungainly aspects of the work.

With the Short Symphony we encounter the mature Copland, although not the composer of the popular works of Americana; that side of his work had yet to appear. While instantly identifiable as Copland from the first measure, this composition reflects the neo-classicism of Stravinsky as filtered through an American lens. The composer himself considered it to be one of his most important works, noting its “complex rhythms combined with clear textures.” In addition to being both gripping and compelling, it is also one of the first major examples of American orchestral neo-classicism. At the time of its composition, orchestras found its constantly shifting meters and accents to be extraordinarily difficult (although it could probably be sight-read by most orchestras today). For this reason Copland created an alternate version for clarinet, piano, and string quartet that would be easier to coordinate. Today it is heard in both its original orchestral guise and the reduced version, known as Sextet. But even the orchestral version has a “chamber music” feeling to it, as the instrumentation omits lower brasses as well as percussion. Here I must observe that Alsop/Bournemouth’s rendering of the third movement is rather timid and reticent, resulting in something of a let-down. Copland’s own recording is somewhat stronger and more incisive, if at the expense of some clarity and precision.

Although two of these three works are not “mainstream Copland,” they represent significant stages of his artistic development, and all three are essential to a full understanding of the composer. Previous recorded performances of these works have both strengths and weaknesses; none are wholly satisfactory. While this new performance of the Short Symphonyalso falls short of ideal, the disc as a whole represents good value for Copland aficionados.